BY YASSIN SABHA
Yassin Sabha (SAIS class of 2013) is an Italian-Jordanian young economist specialized in private sector development, investment policy, and competitiveness currently based in Vienna.
Rieti, situated less then 80 km from Rome, is the geographic center of Italy. Founded decades before Rome, Rieti gave birth to three Roman emperors, including those who built the Coliseum, and is the place where Italy’s first sugar factory was established. The industrial zone of Rieti also hosts Italy’s leading manufacturer of solar panels called Solsonica, as well as being a hub for metering and dosing pumps, giving the city the name “Pump Valley”.
However, Rieti’s economy fares much worse than Italy’s as a whole. For instance, with an urban population of less than 50 thousand, Rieti’s GDP per capita is 30 percent lower than Italy’s average. Since the European sovereign debt crisis between 2009-12, Rieti’s economy lost 12.4 percent of its value, while Italy’s shrunk by 1.9 percent. Unemployment increased by 45 percent since 2009, especially among the youth. Many young people are migrating to other parts of Italy, or abroad (like myself) to seek better opportunities. With a negative birthrate, the population is ageing and rapidly shrinking. At the same time, the private sector is suffering from a weak investment climate. Firm birth rates have been negative for the past few years while the number of innovative start-ups has been zero. (You can read my report – in Italian – and blog on Rieti’s state of the economy and competitiveness for more info)
A group of young professionals from Rieti decided to leverage their knowledge and skills to rescue their hometown under crisis. The goal is to gradually build a Next Rieti on innovation, merit and transparency, starting from the redevelopment of a deserted industrial plant called the Snia Viscosa. Once a textile manufacturer that gave work to thousands of people over three to four generations, the Snia Viscosa has been abandoned since the plant shut down in 2003.
Next Snia’s vision is to turn this disused plant into Rieti’s engine of innovation and sustainable growth. In order to achieve this, we want to recruit the best professionals from Italy and abroad, who represent a diverse set of backgrounds such as economists, urban planners, start-uppers, architects, green economy experts, etc. On January 29, we launched an international call to select a working group of ten experts to lead the designing of a development strategy for Rieti.
The Next Snia Viscosa project has the support of RENA (an Italian civil society movement), Monte dei Paschi di Siena (Italy’s third financial institution and two-thirds owner of the Snia), and Rieti’s Municipality. The organizing team includes 28 young people, who are originally from Rieti but are mostly studying and working outside the city. They share the common goal of enabling sustainable growth in their hometown. The project also benefits from 13 special advisors ranging from Riccardo Donadon (founder of H-Farm, Italy’s main start-up incubator), to Nicola Zingaretti (President of the Lazio Region), and including the support of other local civil society groups and technical mentors.
There are many things that make Next Snia special. Instead of selecting a project or an idea, we decided to select a group of experts that will design together a development project for Next Snia with the support of key stakeholders and top-notch technical advisors. Furthermore, the organizing team has adopted a collaborative approach by engaging with all the key stakeholders both at the local and national levels during all stages of the process.
The application process closed on March 31 with great success. We received 175 applications representing 11 countries with 110 individual applicants and 65 teams. A committee of nine top-notch external experts including Fabrizio Barca (Italy’s former Minister of Development and Territorial Cohesion) is in the process of selecting the top ten applications to form the working group. The group will meet in Rieti between May 7 and May 17 of this year to begin designing the development plan for Next Snia. After that, we will open a consultative process on the development plan at the local, national, and international level, setting the stage for project implementation.
Next Snia was officially launched in an inauguration ceremony that was held for the local community in Rieti. We see this project as a unique opportunity to revert the steep decline of our hometown’s economy since the past decade. Currently, we are at the project design phase that we hope to conclude by this summer, and after which, we will begin implementing our project. However, the path to build the Next Snia is still long and bumpy. That is why we will need the support of the local, national, and international development community in order to succeed.